A new start for innovation funding in Wales?

PraxisAuril has welcomed the recommendation for the reintroduction of dedicated innovation funding for Wales, one of several outcomes to the Reid Review of Government Funded Research & Innovation in Wales.

We also support the recommendation that Welsh innovation is given a more prominent voice in UK policy alongside other devolved nations. The promotion of good practice in knowledge exchange (KE), wherever it is located, is a principal of the PraxisAuril network and we are pleased to be able to support Welsh KE colleagues as work to reform the nation’s research and innovation landscape continues. Our purpose contributing to the Reid Review consultation was to underline the importance of maintaining a professional, skilled network in universities to help to stimulate innovation, productivity and growth both locally and nationally, for economic and social benefit and with a wide range of external stakeholders. With policy now focusing also on stimulating collaboration between universities (the ‘Connecting Capabilities Fund’ and ‘Strength in Places’ scheme) it is important that there is sufficient resource for engagement across the UK and the capacity for sharing good practice.

The value of innovation funding 

The value of, and return from, HE innovation funding in England (HEIF) was recognised in the UK’s Industrial Strategy. The Reid Review, quoting HEFCW, says this is because “it supports knowledge transfer infrastructure in English universities and supports REF impact agenda”. We fully support this statement and have long-called for the reintroduction of innovation funding in Wales to give parity of resource to Welsh universities in knowledge exchange activity. This is about people, skills and capacity for knowledge exchange. In analysis of HEIF strategies (RSM PACEC for HEFCE, 2017) HEIF was one of the most frequently cited key enablers of KE activity, with a substantial amount being spent on staff who are dedicated to knowledge exchange activities of various kinds. This does not only support the status quo but to enables universities to be aspirational, more proactive and risk-taking in their KE activities to support diverse partners and new engagement models. Welsh universities have maintained a level of KE staff despite the lack of innovation funding but the consequence has been that appointments are often made on a fixed-term project-by-project basis. This has negative impacts on both long-term role security and the resilience of service provision. Furthermore, such projects are highly reliant on European sources of funding and so further at risk post Brexit.

Mapping innovation ‘hot spots’ and cluster analysis , such as in the NCUB’s Growing Task Force Wales report and NESTA’s ‘Arloesiadur’ is useful but KE is a people business and in a relatively small geography such as Wales the value of having a dedicated KE network – Welsh Industry Liaison Officers (WILO) – supported by and feeding into PraxisAuril’s UK-wide network is highly beneficial for overall good practice and the research-business interface. This has been demonstrated in Scotland, where the equivalent Universities Scotland Research Commercialisation Directors’ Group has worked together to issue a joint statement on spin-out formation, for example. Although the Reid Review does not refer to KE professionals in its analysis, we would encourage greater focus on the roles, skills and connections that Welsh KE professionals have, and the insight they can bring to innovation funding, policy and implementation discussions.

National performance and UK innovation metrics

We note that the TERCW proposals are linked to a review of performance monitoring in the sector, recently concluded (The Weingarten review) and the desire to create a system that can assess institutional and sector-wide attainments against national objectives. The review notes that any system created in Wales must “accommodate the reality that Wales must be in a position to compare itself to other relevant jurisdictions”. HEFCW has indicated that it will work with Research England on development of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) which will be a UK-wide benchmark of institutional level knowledge exchange performance. Welsh universities compete on a global stage, for students and research collaborators, participate in both the REF and TEF, and submit annual KE data to the HEBCI survey. Welsh HEIs should, therefore, be able to use the KEF as a benchmarking tool in the Welsh context but also with a non-Welsh ‘peer group’. 

Here, the value of the WILO network working with PraxisAuril’s UK network, benefits both national and UK-wide conversations around metrics and impact: we all agree that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach but we can all learn from different approaches taken by; individual HEIs, in collaboration for an industry sector or regional benefit, or at the national policy level.

The geography of collaboration and innovation strategy 

Welsh university collaboration does not necessarily respect geographical boundaries and should be allowed to flourish where there are common interests, research strengths and infrastructure; such as GW4 in the south, and the nuclear cluster in north Wales and the North West. In Wales, as in any devolved nation or indeed English region, UK Industrial Strategy needs to strike a balance between localised needs, strengths and ambitions within a national framework; addressing how national and regional industrial strategies contribute to and are recognised at UK level. The need for leadership and a ‘Team Wales’ spirit comes through in the Reid Review. This extends to Welsh representation in UK-wide initiatives, such as development of the KEF. Where an initiative has its genesis in Research England but applies to the UK as a whole it is important that devolved nation views are taken into account but also that there is the capacity to engage: innovation funding has a role here and devolved nations’ eligibility for the new ‘Strength in Places’ fund is to be welcomed. 

Restructuring and implementation

The Welsh Government has issued a technical consultation for its White Paper proposals to restructure FE and HE governance under a Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales (TERCW) which would be responsible for higher and further education, work-based learning, adult learning, and potentially sixth form education. Within the Commission, Research and Innovation Wales (RIW) would be established. The aim of the reforms is to provide oversight and co-ordination of research and innovation funding but also attend to the needs of the skills-base to create a future pipeline of ideas and innovators for Wales, ensuring that there is a workforce to keep innovative companies and clusters in Wales and attract inward investment. The description of RIW’s ambitions around funding modes and recipients (para 293-301) presents a logical progression from un-hypothecated to project-based funding but, as the following paragraphs (302-305) make clear, this is a broad scope to cover.

PraxisAuril welcomes the consultation’s reference to the Haldane principle and the extension to innovation and knowledge exchange “such that appropriate innovation, business, technical and commercial expertise is brought to bear for decision making involving innovation, knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange and other appropriate activities.” (p.92, 313). We underline again the expertise of KE professionals in HEIs in this respect.

Implementing both the recommendations of the Reid Review and those of the TERCW White Paper is a tall order that raises concerns about the speed of change and the resources (not least financial) required. However, there may be benefits to bringing research and innovation activities into a single organisation which can then link to UKRI and have some parity of remit whilst raising the profile of research and innovation in Wales as the Welsh Government wishes, and in-country reviews recommend. Given the need for Welsh HEIs and their partners to engage with UK Industrial Strategy funding initiatives as well as meeting expectations of the Welsh government for national innovations and growth, the need to implement the Reid Review recommendations is urgent. The complexity of structural changes proposed in the TERCW consultation should not disrupt that as the proposed enhanced level of investment in the Welsh KE community will undoubtedly enhance the nation’s future economic development and international competitiveness.